Amid Diplomatic Efforts |

Assad: We'll Give Up Chemical Weapons Once U.S. Stops Arming Rebels

Washington wants Assad to make immediate, public declaration of its chemical weapons stockpiles as a prelude to inspecting and neutralizing them, as Assad makes defiant statements in an interview with Russian TV.

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Syria will fulfill an initiative to hand over its chemical weapons only when the United States stops threatening to strike Syria, the Russian RIA news agency quoted President Bashar Assad as saying in a television interview.

Assad also said that Damascus will begin handing over information on its chemical weapons stockpiles one month after it joins a anti-chemical weapons convention.

"When we see the United States really wants stability in our region and stops threatening, striving to attack, and also ceases arms deliveries to terrorists, then we will believe that the necessary processes can be finalized," he was quoted as saying in an interview with Russian state television.

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Assad's remarks came shortly before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov met in Geneva to discuss the Moscow-sponsored plan to avert a U.S.-led strike on Syria in exchange for Damascus abandoning its chemical arsenal.

During a joint press conference, Kerry insisted that there must be consequences if Syria does not follow through on pledges of giving up its chemical weapons

"This is not a game. It has to be real," Kerry said .

Earlier on Thursday, the United Nations said it had received a document from Syria on joining the global anti-chemical weapons treaty, something the Assad government promised as part of a deal to avoid U.S. air strikes.

"In the past few hours we have received a document from the government of Syria that is being translated, which is to be an accession document concerning the Chemical Weapons Convention," UN spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters.

Syria is one of only seven countries not to have joined the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, which commits members to completely destroying their stockpiles. Israel is another.

But the U.S. State Department subsequently insisted that documents cannot be a substitute for disarmament or a stalling tactic.

State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said the U.S. option to use military force remains on the table while discussions proceed with Russia on how to remove Syria's chemical weapons stockpile.

The statement also added there was no change in the U.S. position that Bashar Assad absolutely must not be part of Syria's political future despite Washington's willingness to work with his government on chemical weapons removal.

Meanwhile, senior American officials said the United States would insist that Syria take rapid steps to show it is serious about abandoning its vast chemical arsenal.

Kerry plans to hold at least two days of talks with Lavrov on a proposal for Syria to give up its chemical weapons that was floated by Moscow this week and rapidly accepted by Syrian President Bashar Assad's government. Assad told Russia's state-run Rossiya-24 channel on Thursday that he had decided to cede control of his chemical weapons because of a Russian request rather than the threat of U.S. military intervention.

Among the first steps Washington wants, one U.S. official said, is for the government of Bashar Assad to quickly make a complete, public declaration of its chemical weapons stockpiles as a prelude to inspecting and neutralizing them.

The aim, the official said, "is to see if there's reality here, or not." The United States and its allies say the Damascus government used those weapons in deadly attacks outside the Syrian capital on August 21.

The hope, the officials said, is that Kerry and Lavrov can agree on a blueprint for Syrian disarmament whose main points would be adopted in a UN Security Council resolution.

Kerry also will meet on Thursday with Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN-Arab League envoy for Syria.

The U.S. secretary of state is accompanied by a large delegation of State and Pentagon nonproliferation experts, and a representative of the U.S intelligence community, in anticipation of detailed, arms control-style talks on how to turn the Russian offer into a concrete disarmament plan.

Kerry's delegation will present the Russians with U.S. intelligence agencies' assessment of the scope of Syria's chemical weapons infrastructure, believed to be among the world's largest, said the official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.

U.S. President Barack Obama, whose efforts to gain public and congressional backing for U.S. military action in Syria have made no headway, cautiously embraced Russia's diplomatic proposal in a prime-time White House speech on Tuesday.
But U.S. officials acknowledge it is far from clear, for both political and logistical reasons, whether an agreement can be struck.

Kerry himself was almost dismissive in an apparently off-hand comment earlier this week on the possibility that Syria might agree to disarm its chemical weapons.

Underscoring the gap that remains between Russia and the United States, Russian President Vladimir Putin in an op-ed in the New York Times reiterated Moscow's view that it was Syrian rebels, not the government of President Bashar al-Assad, who used poison gas on Aug. 21.

The desire to avoid a prolonged diplomatic process that would ease international pressure on Assad has prompted Kerry and his team to insist on quick signs of good faith from the Syrian leader.

"What we are seeking ... is the rapid removal of the repeated use of chemical weapons by the regime. And that means a rapid beginning to international control" over the stockpiles, said a second senior official traveling with Kerry.

Weapons declarations like the one the United States wants from Syria have long been a feature of arms control agreements, going back to Cold War efforts to limit nuclear weapons.

Syria this week acknowledged, apparently for the first time, that it has chemical weapons, but has blamed the Aug. 21 attack on the rebels.

Inspecting, securing and neutralizing them in the midst of a civil war that has killed over 100,000 people will be a stiff challenge, officials acknowledge.

"It is doable, but difficult and complicated," the first official said.

The second official said Syria's chemical weapons stocks are "much larger" than those held by Libya, which voluntarily agreed to abandon them under former dictator Muammer Gadhafi. But they are "much smaller" than the arsenals held by the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War, before both sides agreed to eliminate them.

The U.S. and Russian delegations are also expected to discuss the question of how to provide security for any weapons inspectors who would go to Syria.
Asked whether U.S. specialists might join any inspection teams in Syria, the first official said: "We're not ruling anything in or out."

Meanwhile, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday he was doubtful that Assad would fulfill his pledge to put Syria's chemical weapons under international control, and said he was buying time for new "massacres".

"The Assad regime has not lived up to any of its pledges, it has won time for new massacres and continues to do so," Erdogan said in a speech in Istanbul. "We are doubtful that the promises regarding chemical weapons will be met."

President Bashar Assad speaking during an interview on Syrian state television in May. Credit: AP
Secretary of State John Kerry waves to journalists on September 12, 2013 as he arrives in GenevaCredit: AFP

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